There have been at least 21 versions of the story made for the big screen and dozens more for television. Director Robert Zemeckis and his high tech bag of motion capture tricks don’t add anything to the story, in fact, occasionally his CGI actually gets in the way.
Zemeckis wisely hasn’t toyed around with the 166-year-old story. Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey) is a miserly bah humbugger who doesn’t believe in the spirit of Christmas until he is visited by three spirits—the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future—and finds salvation in their terrifying visions.
“A Christmas Carol” is Zemeckis’s third attempt at creating a film using motion capture—filming the actors and using their motions as a template to create a computer generated film—following “Polar Express” and “Beowulf.” “Polar Express” was meant to be a heart warming Christmas tale but exposed the problem with Zemeckis’s technique—dead CGI eyes. The weirdly lifeless animation was creepy, akin to a Christmas story performed by zombies. “Beowulf” was an improvement but like “A Christmas Carol” there are still kinks to be worked out. Chief among them is: Why bother with this at all?
On the plus side the CGI allows for camera moves that would otherwise be impossible—endless dolly shots through a Dickensian cityscape for example—and the Ghost of Christmas Present death scene is a spectacular scene of gothic creepiness, and is actually enhanced by the use of computer animation. On the minus side the Ghost of Christmas Future, a stand-out in the 1951 Alastair Sim version, is reduced to a show-offy platform for Zemeckis’s 3-D CGI magic.
My main complaint though, is the medium itself. Much of the animation looks great—the texture of Scrooge’s leather chair for instance—but there are enough artificial looking things—the flame in the fireplace or the steam from people’s mouths—that remind us that we’re watching flashing binary code and little else. Some of the characters are well animated but the work is inconsistent, occasionally looking photo realistic, but often not. Unlike live action or even hand drawn animation, there’s nothing that feels organic about motion capture, so the moments that are supposed to strike an emotional chord—like young Ebenezer dancing with his beautiful bride to be, or old Scrooge watching Bob Cratchit’s family deal with the loss of Tiny Tim—have little resonance.
Whatever impact the movie has, and it does have the occasional moment that engages not only the eye but the heart, could have just as easily achieved with a live action cast.
Perhaps Zemeckis should have taken the lead from one of the more famous lines from the story, “Mankind was my business,” and made the movie’s business more about mankind and less about technology.
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